Two quotations seem to carry the main architectural load of Nadine Gordimer’s new book, whose design is strange and not entirely that of a work of fiction. One is from Dostoevsky. It is the voice of the satanic Rogozhin in The Idiot, speaking of doomed and rebellious Nastasya Filippovna: “She would have drowned herself long ago if she had not had me; that’s the truth. She doesn’t do that because, perhaps, I am more dreadful than the water.”
The second comes from Hermann Broch’s The Sleepwalkers, in the translation by Edwin and Willa Muir:
…The transition from any value system to a new one must pass through that zero-point of atomic dissolution, must take its way through a generation destitute of any connection with either the old or the new system, a generation whose very detachment, whose almost insane indifference to the suffering of others, whose state of denudation of values proves an ethical and so an historical justification for the ruthless rejection, in times of revolution, of all that is humane…. And perhaps it must be so, since only such a generation is able to endure the sight of the Absolute and the rising glare of freedom, the light that flares out over the deepest darkness, and only over the deepest darkness….
It’s tempting to imagine that those lines from The Idiot were the seed from which the idea of this novel germinated in Nadine Gordimer’s mind. A most un-English writer, whose sensibility began with Kafka and the Russian novelists, she needs nobody to point out to her that the territory of Dostoevsky’s Russia—a land tortured by vast injustice and cruelty, haunted by millenary dreams of violence and redemption—overlaps with the apartheid South Africa in which she lived and wrote for most of her life. Now she lives and writes in a new country, a half-formed society of a kind almost never seen before anywhere on earth, in which black and white have agreed to suspend their disbelief and bring about a multiracial democracy by their faith as much as by their works. But the present can only be made out of the past, and the old system’s radical contempt for human life now finds expression in a plague of street killings, gang massacres, and armed robbery. The gun is kept close to hand in the white man’s apartment, but also in the black township. A democracy must be built around the right to life, not around the death penalty which was almost a constitutional principle of the old regime. But the inheritance of violence is all too real, and even those who rejoice that South Africa has changed cannot escape the fact of the gun kept at home.
The central characters of the novel are two white parents whose son kills. Harald is an insurance executive, Claudia a doctor in general practice. He is a Catholic; she is an agnostic liberal: “Harald is prompted by the Jesuits, Claudia by Freud.” They are good, intelligent, well-read…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.